What’s America’s Quintessential Holiday

by CiCi
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Thanksgiving stands as one of the most significant and beloved holidays in the United States. Rooted in historical traditions and brimming with cultural significance, it represents a time of gratitude, family gatherings, and a shared meal that includes iconic dishes. While Thanksgiving’s contemporary celebration is broadly recognized, its origins and the layers of meaning behind it are rich and multifaceted, drawing from both Native American and European influences. This article delves into the history, traditions, and cultural importance of Thanksgiving, providing a comprehensive understanding of this quintessential American holiday.

The Historical Roots of Thanksgiving

The origins of Thanksgiving are often traced back to the early 17th century, specifically to the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The commonly accepted narrative tells of a 1621 feast shared between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. However, this story is more nuanced and layered than typically recounted.


The Pilgrims’ Journey and Settlement

In 1620, a group of English Puritans, seeking religious freedom, embarked on a perilous journey across the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower. They arrived at Plymouth Rock in December of that year, facing harsh weather and a lack of provisions. Their survival through the first winter was tenuous, with many succumbing to disease and malnutrition.


Native American Assistance

The survival of the Pilgrims can be significantly attributed to the aid provided by the Wampanoag people, particularly by a Patuxet man named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. Squanto, who had previously been taken to Europe and had learned English, taught the Pilgrims vital agricultural techniques, such as planting corn, fishing, and utilizing local resources. This assistance was crucial for the Pilgrims’ survival and eventual prosperity.

The First Thanksgiving Feast

The first Thanksgiving is believed to have taken place in the autumn of 1621, following the Pilgrims’ successful harvest. This feast was attended by 53 Pilgrims and around 90 Native Americans, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The meal likely included venison, fowl, corn, nuts, and shellfish, differing significantly from today’s traditional turkey-centric dinner. This event was more a harvest celebration and a symbol of cooperation and mutual aid than a formal “Thanksgiving” as we understand it today.

Evolution of Thanksgiving Celebrations

While the 1621 feast is often highlighted, Thanksgiving as an annual tradition did not solidify immediately. Over the centuries, the holiday evolved through proclamations, regional observances, and finally, national recognition.

Regional Traditions

For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Thanksgiving was celebrated sporadically and regionally, with various colonies and states declaring days of thanks for specific events, such as military victories or bountiful harvests. These early observances were primarily religious, marked by church services and communal meals.

George Washington’s Proclamation

The first national Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by President George Washington in 1789, designating November 26 as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. Washington’s proclamation was not an annual mandate but set a precedent for future presidents to follow.

Abraham Lincoln and the National Holiday

It was not until the Civil War era that Thanksgiving was established as a recurring national holiday. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving and praise. Lincoln’s proclamation was influenced by the persistent efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor who advocated for a unified national holiday to promote unity and healing during the turbulent times of the Civil War.

The Modern Date and Commercial Influence

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up one week, aiming to extend the holiday shopping season and boost the economy. This decision led to controversy and was eventually settled in 1941 when Congress passed a law establishing Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November.

Thanksgiving Traditions and Symbols

Modern Thanksgiving is marked by a variety of traditions and symbols that have become deeply ingrained in American culture. These include the iconic Thanksgiving meal, parades, football games, and various acts of charity and community service.

The Thanksgiving Meal

The centerpiece of Thanksgiving celebrations is the meal, often featuring roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Each dish carries its own history and significance:

  • Turkey: While not confirmed as a part of the original 1621 feast, turkey became the preferred main course by the 19th century due to its availability and size, making it ideal for feeding large gatherings.
  • Stuffing/Dressing: Recipes for stuffing vary widely across regions and families, often including bread, herbs, and other ingredients like sausage, nuts, or fruit.
  • Cranberry Sauce: Cranberries are native to North America and were likely present at the early celebrations, though the sweetened sauce popular today became widespread in the 19th century.
  • Pumpkin Pie: Pumpkins and squash were staples in Native American diets, and pumpkin pie has become a quintessential Thanksgiving dessert, symbolizing the fall harvest.

Parades and Public Celebrations

One of the most famous Thanksgiving traditions is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, featuring elaborate floats, balloons, and performances. This parade, first held in 1924, has become a hallmark of the holiday, drawing millions of viewers each year.


Football games, both professional and collegiate, have become synonymous with Thanksgiving. The tradition dates back to the late 19th century, with the NFL’s Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys traditionally hosting games on Thanksgiving Day.

Acts of Charity and Community Service

Thanksgiving is also a time for giving back to the community. Many individuals and organizations participate in charitable activities such as food drives, volunteering at shelters, and providing meals for the less fortunate. These acts of kindness embody the spirit of gratitude and community central to the holiday.

Thanksgiving in Native American Perspective

While Thanksgiving is largely celebrated as a time of gratitude and togetherness, it is also a time of reflection and mourning for many Native Americans. The holiday can evoke painful memories of the subsequent suffering and displacement experienced by Indigenous peoples following European colonization.

National Day of Mourning

Since 1970, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) have observed Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning. This annual event, held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, honors Native ancestors and highlights the ongoing struggles of Native American communities. The National Day of Mourning serves as a counter-narrative to the traditional Thanksgiving story, emphasizing the need for historical accuracy and recognition of Native American resilience and contributions.

Reclaiming Native Traditions

In recent years, there has been a growing movement among Native American communities to reclaim and celebrate their own harvest traditions and ceremonies. These efforts focus on honoring Native heritage, promoting cultural revitalization, and fostering a deeper understanding of Native American history and contributions.

Thanksgiving Around the World

While Thanksgiving is primarily an American holiday, similar celebrations of gratitude and harvest occur in various cultures worldwide.


Canada celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. Canadian Thanksgiving shares many similarities with the American version, including a festive meal and a focus on gratitude. The holiday’s origins in Canada can be traced back to early European settlers and their harvest festivals.

Other Countries

Several other countries have holidays that resemble Thanksgiving, often revolving around harvest time and giving thanks. For example:

  • Germany: Erntedankfest, or the Harvest Thanksgiving Festival, is celebrated in early October, featuring church services, parades, and communal meals.
  • Japan: Labor Thanksgiving Day, observed on November 23, combines harvest celebrations with a focus on honoring workers and labor rights.

The Commercialization and Cultural Impact of Thanksgiving

As with many holidays, Thanksgiving has not escaped commercialization. The holiday marks the unofficial start of the Christmas shopping season, epitomized by Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which has become synonymous with massive sales and consumer frenzy.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Black Friday, characterized by doorbuster deals and early morning store openings, has evolved into a major retail event, often overshadowing the holiday’s original intent of gratitude and reflection. In recent years, Cyber Monday has emerged as an online shopping counterpart, further extending the holiday shopping season.

Media and Pop Culture

Thanksgiving is a prominent theme in American media and pop culture, from classic films like “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” to television episodes centered around Thanksgiving dinners. These portrayals often emphasize the comedic and chaotic aspects of family gatherings, while also highlighting the importance of connection and tradition.

See also: What Are The Most Popular Holiday Destinations

Conclusion: Thanksgiving’s Enduring Legacy

Thanksgiving remains a deeply cherished and multifaceted holiday in the United States, blending historical significance, cultural traditions, and contemporary practices. It is a time for Americans to come together with family and friends, express gratitude, and celebrate the harvest season.

However, it is also a time to acknowledge and reflect on the complex history of Native Americans and the impact of European colonization. By understanding and honoring all perspectives, we can foster a more inclusive and respectful celebration.

As Thanksgiving continues to evolve, it retains its core values of gratitude, community, and shared abundance, making it a unique and enduring part of American culture.


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